Prayer in the Night – Keep Watch, Dear Lord: Pain and Presence, pt.2

I am looking forward to continuing our discussion of the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren’s book Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep. For tonight, please read Chapter 2: “Keep Watch, Dear Lord: Pain and Presence.” If possible, please give yourself time to be able to read the chapter slowly and to think and pray through her message.

The Prayer:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or
weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who
sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless
the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the
joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
1979 BCP 134

The Question:

When we walk into and through the valley of the dark night of the soul, we are confronted with the mystery of pain and suffering. Any attempt to resolve this mystery will necessarily come up short. There is no answer as to why there is pain and suffering, and there is no answer as to why God does not intervene to spare us from all pain and suffering. If you have an “answer” try to apply that answer to the Holocaust or the 2004 tsunami. Ultimately, suffering and evil are “an absurd and inexplicable abnormality” which defy any answer. p.25.

The question, therefore, that we must face is “How do we trust a God who does not stop [bad things] from happening? How do we dare ask him to keep watch?” p.27. How do we pray in the darkness to a God who seems absent at best and malevolent at worst?

The Answer (Sort of):

This being a church bible study, the answer to the question (whatever the question may be) is always “Jesus.” When Job complains to God about the pain and suffering of the human condition, God answers Job’s complaint with a demurrer – “Who are you to question me?!” Job 38:2. In Jesus. God amends his answer. In Jesus, God does not provide an answer to the mystery of pain and suffering, nor does God take away our vulnerability. Rather, he enters into it. p.29. God will not tell us why but he will empty himself and take our human nature upon himself.

In Jesus, God does not keep bad things from happening to God himself. Even if God expresses a little self-doubt to himself. Matt. 26:39. “To look at Jesus is to know that our Creator has felt pain, has known trouble, and is well-acquainted with sorrow.” p.30. Rev. Warren is quick to point out that the pain and suffering of Jesus is not simply to be considered a historical reality expressed in the past tense. Rather, we boldly assert that “We find he is here with us, in the present tense.” p.30.

As we have looked at before, God is outside of time. God exists in the eternal present. When we look at Jesus’ suffering, it is in this eternal present. Through his suffering he participates in our suffering and we participate in his. Jesus does not tell us why, but he does tell us that he is with us in our darkness and that he is beside us in our pain and suffering. The question then becomes how do we make this statement of faith – that Jesus is with us in our suffering because he too suffered – into something we can hold onto and not simply to allow it to become just another shallow vacuous platitude.

The Craft – Doctrine, Tradition, and Prayer:

In her Prologue, Rev. Warren writes that faith is more of a craft than a feeling, and the primary tool of this craft is prayer. p.8. In our chapter tonight, she writes that we cannot depend on our present circumstances to guide our decisions concerning God’s presence. “If the question of whether God is real or not – or of whether God is kind or indifferent or a bastard – is determined solely by the balance of joy and sorrow in our own lives or in the world, we will never be able to say anything about who God is.” p.27.

The first place we look to practice our craft of faith and to see the present reality of God in Jesus in our suffering is in the doctrines and traditions of the church. It is here that the reality of God being with us in the darkness is made real. Within the Christian tradition we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1) stretching back 3000 years to the first stories being told in the Hebrew Scriptures and the first systematic philosophical thoughts of the Greek pre-socratics. These two streams of thought are conjoined in the person of Jesus (Logos being a Greek concept) and the writings of the New Testament. Over the next 2000 years, Christians have confronted the same darkness and doubts that we too experience, and have left us with a record of their encounters with God in the darkness.

Therefore, when we experience times of deep darkness and doubts, the church has given us its doctrines, its prayers, and its practices that have been formulated over the millennia. To paraphrase Rev. Warren, when we say “I cannot pray,” the church says “here are some prayers.” When we say “I cannot believe,” the church says “here is a creed, and come to the table and simply be fed.” When we say “I cannot worship any longer,” the church sings over us with the language of faith. p.31. The daily and weekly rhythms that we experience in the liturgy are the craft that provides and reinforce our faith in the times of darkness. (For me, when things were dark and doubtful, the Eucharistic prayers in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and the Vespers of the Orthodox Church carried me and prayed, believed, and worshiped when I could not.)

The Cairns:

Rev. Warren calls the doctrines, traditions, and prayers of the church, “cairns.” Cairns are piles of rocks used as markers. Cairns can mark both historical events (as memorials) or simply as trail markers to guide hikers or sailors. (Ebenezers are cairns, but that is another post for another day.) Rev. Warren relates that on the trail along Mt. Washington in New Hampshire that is often strong winds and whiteout conditions. In these circumstances, hikers simply walk and shelter from one cairn to another. Likewise, the doctrines, traditions, and prayers of the Church are our cairns. When in the darkness of pain and suffering we lose our spiritual trail, it is these cairns that guide us and shelter us. Those that have gone before us, have marked the trail, and point us towards Jesus.   

The True Promise:

Rev. Warren began this chapter by telling us that God never promised to keep bad things from happening to us. She ends this chapter with the promise that God does make: “he will keep us close, even in darkness, in doubt, in fear and in vulnerability.” p.32. “He promises that we will not be left alone. He will keep watch with us in the night.” p.33. When we suffer deeply, there is no explanation, no reason, and no answer. The only comfort is the comfort of knowing that you are loved and that someone understands your suffering. This is the promise of Keeping Watch.

Discussion Questions:

1. The author says, “In the most vulnerable and human moments of our lives, doctrine is unavoidable. When all else gives way, all of us, from atheists monks, fall back on what do we believe about the world, about ourselves, and about God.” Was there a time of crisis or suffering when you fell back on doctrine or what you believe? Describe that experience, and say what underlying story or conviction carried you.

2. Is there a particular place in your life where you are keeping God on trial? Where your verdict on his goodness is contingent on a particular outcome?

3. The author highlights doctrine, but then says we can’t hold the Christian story in our head as a mere fact. How do doctrine and practice go together when we are suffering or encountering vulnerability?

Personal Practises:

1. Sit alone and quietly in the night with no screens or work. Turn off the overhead lighting and use only lamps or candlelight. Reflect on what thoughts, feelings, or questions surface in this time.

2. Go without electric light completely for one night. Journal your thoughts about that experience.

3. Try different ways of prayer: compline or another scripted prayer, extemporaneous prayer, journaling. Pick a style of prayer that you don’t normally do.

4. Journal about what “cairns” in your life have been most important to you. What practices have been given to you to keep you from getting lost?

5. Read the Gospel of Mark all the way through in one sitting, or over the course of a week. Highlight every way you see Jesus experiencing vulnerability and entering into our human experience.

Dinner is at 6. The menu is chicken saltimbocca. Discussion about 6:45. Compline about 8. Hope to see you here.

On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

1979 BCP 362

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